A pilot delivers many benefits. Some are related to technology and others are about getting people on board.
"Computers in the future may weigh no more than 1.5 tons" Popular Mechanics, 1949
People are notoriously bad at predicting the future, and technology forecasts can be some of the most inaccurate.
That’s why one of the most important things when you’re considering a significant upgrade to your organisation’s IT systems is to run a pilot. Pilot programmes can build enthusiasm for change, bolster the case for new systems and help identify any possible issues that might affect a wider rollout.
First, it’s important to be clear what we mean by running a pilot: a pilot is a small scale proof of concept implementation. It’s a way to test whether an idea, IT system or new procedure is capable of doing what you want it to do, and to identify whether a particular product is the right fit for your organisation.
A pilot is often confused with a trial, but that’s a different thing altogether: you run a pilot to try something new, whereas a trial involves testing a product you’ve already decided to use in order to identify any implementation issues you might face in the wider organisation.
Essentially, then, the pilot asks “how might this work?” while a trial asks “what’s going to happen when we roll this out?” A McKinsey survey of nearly 2,000 executives with recent experience of major change found that a lack of pilot programmes is one reason that only 30% of change programmes succeed.
Just think of the wasted time, money and opportunity that number represents.
How to have a productive pilot programme
A pilot delivers many benefits, but there are two particularly important ones:
It demonstrates the technical feasibility to the board, and it can be used as a model for the rest of your organisation when you’re embarking on a full roll-out.
It’s also a big help in overcoming resistance to change within your organisation: if key staff are involved from the outset and participate in the pilot programme, it’ll feel less like a top-down exercise inflicted by management.
Before you begin to plan and structure your pilot, it’s important to answer one simple question: what do you want the new system to accomplish? For example, are you trying to improve data quality or data sharing? Is the system intended to reduce the time spent on certain tasks, or to provide better customer data? This way you’re adopting the scientific method: set out your hypothesis and gather the evidence to prove or disprove it.
According to McKinsey, programs are six times more likely to succeed if they are structured around readily understandable themes. Programs that encourage employees to take the initiative and contribute to change have five times the success rate of those with a purely top-down thrust. And transformations with clear, unambiguous metrics and milestones are more than seven times more likely to succeed than those that lacked these elements.”
Painkillers It’s very important to keep communicating with your pilot users during and after the pilot programme. They’ve been at the sharp end, so they’re the people best placed to help you identify any unexpected challenges - and unexpected benefits - that emerged during the programme. That significantly reduces the likelihood of encountering unhappy surprises during a full roll-out and has a positive effect on morale too.
Once the pilot programme has ended, it’s time to return to your list of objectives and quantify them. For example, the pilot programme may have reduced data errors by X percent, or improved allocation efficiency by Y percent. Being able to provide hard data to stakeholders, especially senior management, helps bolster your case for a wider roll-out. Don’t forget about improvements experienced by the pilot users, either: their findings can help champion the system among users who might otherwise be resistant to any changes.
An inconvenient truth There’s another crucial point to remember with pilots: they’re often given lots of resources and management attention, and that’s great - but if the same level of support and enthusiasm isn’t applied to the wider roll-out, then you might not have the same successful result.
For complex businesses it’s wise to run multiple pilots in different venues to ensure that your testing is covering the full range of your business activities. McKinsey recommends choosing your most enthusiastic and high-achieving locations for initial pilot programmes - “they can quickly demonstrate tangible wins and set new performance standards” - but of course those locations may also be unrepresentative of how the system will work in other parts of your organisation. That’s why it’s so important for larger or more complex organisations to run multiple pilots.
Points to remember:
A pilot isn’t a trial: it’s a proof of concept to explore new ideas.
Communication with key staff before, during and after the pilot is crucial.
What is the question or questions you want your pilot to answer?
A successful pilot bolsters your case to the board and to employees.
Larger or more complex businesses may require multiple pilots to cover differing circumstances.
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